Abenaki (or Wabanaki) is a broad term that refers to a number of loosely related Algonquian-speaking peoples of northern New England. In the colonial period, Abenaki territory included pieces of Canada, Massachusetts, and New York, though the group is most closely associated with Vermont and Maine (the respective heartlands of the Western and Eastern Abenaki). When Europeans first arrived in northern New England, they encountered peoples who relied on hunting and gathering, and supplemented these activities with corn agriculture and freshwater fishing. Abenakis living on the Atlantic coast also took advantage of the resources offered by the ocean.
As far as Abenaki social and political organization was concerned, the family band was the main unit, and village life and the process of making major decisions was overseen by a council of elders. This type of organization allowed for a fluid political situation. As with other Native American communities, the arrival of Europeans brought disease epidemics to the Abenaki.
Thousands of Abenakis died in 1616 1617 from an undiagnosed plague, and thousands more died in a smallpox outbreak in 1633 1634. Additional epidemics swept through northern New England in 1669, in 1684, and throughout the 1690s. In addition to disease, Europeans brought new religions and technologies to Abenaki country.
The fur trade flourished, with Abenakis bringing in beaver pelts for manufactured cloth, glass bottles and mirrors, metal goods, and wampum (a seventeenth-century currency made from drilled shell beads, which took on spiritual significance for some Native Americans). Although the fur trade's effects were not as immediate as those of the diseases Europeans introduced, the Abenaki did trade at a disadvantage and eventually became dependent on European goods. Trade also had profound effects on Abenaki social organization.
Before the development of extensive European trade, band chiefs wielded symbolic power but had little authority. As trade increased, chiefs redistributed goods. Europeans enforced this centralizing tendency by preferring to deal with a single major chief.
The arrival of the English and the rapid expansion of New England brought a new threat to the Abenaki. The French inhabitants of Abenaki country made relatively few demands. They forced the Abenaki to convert to Catholicism, at least minimally, and carried on a brisk trade in beaver pelts.
Many Abenakis converted to Catholicism, as Jesuit priests made easy converts in disease-devastated communities. The English wanted land, and, moreover, they wanted the Abenaki to give up their long-standing cultural institutions and lifeways. Relations with the Iroquois were never that strong, and, in the second half of the seventeenth century, the Abenaki found themselves wedged between three empires: Iroquois, French, and English.
The result of this tension was a series of devastating wars, first with the Iroquois (1664 1669) and later with the English (1675 1676, 1689 1697, and 1702 1713). The Abenaki remained allied with the French through the French and Indian War (1754 1763). In the aftermath of the French defeat, the Abenaki faced a colonial situation similar to that of other Native American groups.
English settlers poured into Abenaki country, cutting down forests and replacing them with farms, mills, roads, and bridges. This new wave of settlement, together with a British decision to deal mainly with the Abenaki at St. Francis (Odanak, a mission community on the St.
Lawrence River), persuaded many Abenakis to withdraw farther into their traditional territory. The onset of the American Revolution was a time of great turmoil in many native communities. Although the Abenaki likely would have opted for neutrality had they been given a choice, they fought on both sides of the War for Independence, usually serving as rangers or scouts.
As the American government took control of the region, it did not distinguish between loyalist and rebel communities; it simply saw all native peoples as potential enemies. The Abenaki survived in the face of overwhelming odds. A 1768 woodcut depicts a sachem of the Abenaki nation saving an English officer from attack by two tribesmen.
The influx of British settlers and clearing of forests forced these native peoples deep into traditional lands in northern New England. The Abenaki fought on both sides in the Revolutionary War. (Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-45552) Many Abenaki hid their identity through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; some passed as French Canadians.
In fact, the 1900 U.S. census listed only five Native Americans in Vermont.
Today, the situation is more hopeful. The Abenaki people have recovered remarkably from the devastation of colonialism, both numerically and in terms of cultural and political autonomy, in both the United States and Canada. Matthew Jennings See also: Native American-European Relations; Native Americans.
Bibliography Calloway, Colin G.“Abenaki. ” In Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E.Hoxie.
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Calloway, Colin G.The Western Abenakis of Vermont: War, Migration, and the Survival of an Indian People.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. Haviland, William A., and Marjory W.Power.
The Original Vermonters: Native Inhabitants, Past and Present. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for the University of Vermont, 1981. Family: Abenaki Indians on Pinterest Native American, Indian and … Abenaki Couple Abenaki Sokoki woman is featured artist at IAIS Shako Liu.